Research Spotlight: When Innovation is a Dealer in Hope

“How old were you when your accident happened?”

“Twenty-one. It happened on September 2nd, 1980. I was working as a brakeman, and I forgot all about a close clearance post that was too close to the track. I was looking the opposite direction and – bang! – it knocked me off the car. And in a struggle to get my legs free, my arm got caught.”

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Danny Letain, SFU MASS Impact’s Pilot

It may surprise you to learn that the current options for prosthetics are not as user friendly as sci-fi movies make them appear. Many people reject them entirely, citing that using them is both mentally and physically exhausting as they try to communicate with the machine through a series of deliberate muscle movements and uncomfortable straps.

But this doesn’t have to be the future of prosthetics, and Simon-Fraser University’s MASS Impact research team is going to prove it.


“The goal is for Danny to not think about moving his hand, but to just do it,” Lukas-Karim Merhi, team leader, shares in their interview with Radio Roundhouse Vancouver.

But how is that possible?

To better understand the technology SFU MASS Impact team is researching and building for people with amputations, try this:

1. Take your right hand and tightly grab your left wrist.

2. Make a fist with your left hand.

3. Now point. Open your hand. Wiggle your fingers.

Do you feel those movements in your forearm and wrist? Those muscles are the same ones that Mr. Letain uses when controlling this new bionic prosthetic that his team is creating.

This is especially exciting for Mr. Letain because in the 35 years since his accident, this is the first time he gets to move his hand intuitively, as if it were still there. Imagine how that would feel – your fingers moving for the first time in decades thanks to a sensor strip that tracks the same muscles that used to move them.

This team is not only researching and developing the prosthesis, but they are also planning a trip to Zurich later this year to compete in the inaugural Cybathlon – a worldwide event for people with disabilities to compete in races using the latest assistive-technologies.

With Danny Letain as their pilot, the Simon-Fraser University team will compete in the Powered Arm Prosthesis Race.

Mr. Letain, a former paralympian himself, is touting Cybathlon as “the first cyborg olympics in the world.”
Yes. Just – yes. This is the future, everyone!

With an eye on the gold as their team represents Canada, SFU Mass Impact has also had to consider how to help fund this experience. We were privileged that they turned to us to seek the additional funding they need for their team to travel and compete in the race.

Check out SFU MASS Impact’s crowdfunding campaign and see their determination first-hand. They are innovators in higher education who refuse to stand still, and it is clear that nothing – and I mean nothing – is going to stop them.

We get starry eyed over teams like this one. It’s an incredible narrative – one that has a direct impact on the lives of people with real challenges. Challenges that the rest of us never recognize as challenges: Picking up a ball. Holding a pencil. Waving to a friend.

“What the SFU team has done right now, and the research they’re doing and are continuing to do,” Danny Letain says in the team’s crowdfunding video, “I can see a day where I can wiggle my fingers again – and to me, that would be very exciting.”

Interested in learning more? Let's talk